Brian cuts the figure of your typical surfer guy. With his bleached blond hair, sun-kissed skin and stocky frame, he always appears as though he’s just emerged from the waves. Brian decided to follow Jesus as a young man and since then had served God wholeheartedly, volunteering at his church in the coastal town of Kaikoura, New Zealand. 

One morning Brian was going about his normal routine when the Holy Spirit spoke: Make the bed.’ 

Brian was taken aback: But why?’ 

Brian’s wife Lisa always made the bed. She did an excellent job of it too. It was an elaborate operation involving three layers of pillows and the careful placement of several cushions. Why would God ask Brian to make the bed?

Unfortunately for Brian, his protestations went unheard. So, Brian went to his wife and explained that God was calling him to make the bed. Would she show him how? Lisa smiled as she carefully detailed the process. 

Brian’s early attempts were decidedly pathetic, but improved as the days wore on. After a month or so, Brian’s bed-making was as his good as his wife’s.

A year later, God spoke again: Now that you have learnt to serve your wife, I would like you to serve the church.” 

Brian became the senior pastor of his church at the age of 51. Since then, the community has flourished, and a host of people have been touched by Jesus. The dramatic testimonies of former drug addicts, gang members and rebels have become the talk of the town. Personally, Brian is thriving. He is still making the bed.

We know that God works in us to restore the image of God in us and make us more like Jesus. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, we are being transformed into God’s image with ever-increasing glory which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). The question is how does that transformation occur? 

Brian’s story powerfully demonstrates the way of Holy Spirit in the process of spiritual formation. The revelatory work of the Spirit is Jesus-shaped.” That is Holy Spirit speaks to call us to follow Jesus — to walk the way of the cross and in doing so, form his qualities and produce resurrection life (Gal. 4:19).

Connecting Holy Spirit back to Jesus

When people seek to hear God’s voice for their lives, they often come expecting some sort of guidance or perhaps a promise for their future… I am going to promote you in your career.” I am going to provide you with a beautiful new home.” I am going to give you the desires of your heart.” They don’t usually expect to hear a message like, make the bed.” Why is that? 

The answer has to do with some of our theological traditions. We’ve lost the link between the revelatory work of the Spirit and the work of Jesus.

Here, the Protestant Reformation had a part to play. In the debates over the source of authority between the Reformers and the Catholic church, the revelatory work of the Spirit inadvertently lost its place. Spirit experiences began to be pitted against Scripture. Tragically the work of the Spirit was downplayed and in some cases, completely discarded. Soon, the Reformers position known as Cessationism became the Protestant norm. Now you could only hear God’s voice through the Bible. As a result, the epistles began to be favored for their didactic instruction over the narratives for their descriptions of Spirit-led activity. Acquisition of theological knowledge became the primary pathway to discipleship and spiritual maturity.

This approach set a trajectory in history that means in scholarship today, discussion of prophetic revelation typically focusses on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians rather than Luke’s narratives in Acts. While Paul’s teachings on the public gift of prophecy are helpful in the context of the Sunday service, prioritizing them over Acts means that we don’t address the private role of the Spirit in the everyday lives of the church. Worse still, it means that we overlook the link between Jesus and the Spirit.

In the book of Acts, the connection between Jesus and the Spirit is all too clear. It begins with Jesus’ promises to his disciples and their fulfilment at Pentecost. That monumental day marked the moment when all God’s people received the Spirit for themselves and with that, the ability to hear God’s voice in the same way as the Old Covenant prophets (see 1. The Jesus Shaped-Spirit for Discipleship and Mission). 

The outworking of the Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost is best understood in light of Jesus’ words to his disciples. Prior to his ascension, Jesus had spoken of the Spirit’s coming. He would not leave his disciples alone — the Spirit would speak as his continuing voice after he left (John 16:7).

Jesus had also explicated the purpose of Spirit-speech under the New Covenant. The Spirit would speak in two areas. First, to remind God’s people of the truths established in his incarnation (John 14:26) – the truths are now reliably recorded as Scripture. The second to speak about things to come” (John 16:13). The Spirit would take the foundational truths of the gospel and apply them to individual lives. It would be like having Jesus physically present with them. 

This is what we see as the story of the early church unfolds. The Spirit spoke to remind the disciples of gospel truths and then apply those truths to their lives. Every expansion in the mission of God began with a God-conversation. Every time the Spirit spoke, it continued the ministry of Jesus.

A Cross-Shaped Process

This link between Jesus and the Spirit grounds our hearing God experiences in the process of spiritual formation. Jesus said following him would require taking up our cross” and denying ourselves.” It’s then we can experience resurrection life (Matt. 16:25). While on earth, this process was outworked the disciples listened to Jesus’ teachings and acted on what he said.

Today, this process is continued by the Jesus-shaped Spirit. Spiritual formation is cross-shaped” — the Spirit speaks to nail our sin and selfishness to the cross. Brian’s story illustrates this well. His cross came in the form of acts of service for his wife. Every morning as he positioned the cushions, angled the pillows and straightened the quilt, Brian was being spiritually formed. He was growing in his relationship with God. The outcome was humility and a servant-heart – the qualities of Jesus — and in turn, a release of the Spirit in Brian’s community. 

This approach to spiritual formation reorients us from external behaviour to internal transformation. It shifts our growth-measures to action over information and from head knowledge to heart knowledge. In epistemological terms, knowledge is experiential rather than cerebral and relational rather than theoretical. In real terms, it is the kind of knowledge” that results in growth from the inside out. 

The Key to Spiritual Formation

What then is the key to spiritual formation? One way of answering the question may be to ask the question: Would have spoken to Brian about leading the church if he had said no” to making the bed?”

The pre-requisite for all spiritual formation lies in our response – will we say yes” to the Spirit or will we say no”? When we say yes’, God is able to reveal more of himself to us (John 14:21). When we say no, spiritual growth grinds to a halt. We can continue to go through the motions of attending church, repeating prayers, even reading Scripture, but the work of the Spirit will be thwarted.

When Spirit speaks, we are called to respond. When we say yes, we become like Jesus. Our followship’ produces the qualities of Jesus in our lives. This is the goal of discipleship and our qualification for mission. Our spiritual growth remains ever dependent on doing what the Spirit says.

Adapted from The Church who Hears God’s Voice: Equipping Everyone to Everyone to Recognise and Respond to the Spirit by Rev Dr Tania Harris.

Tania Harris

Tania Harris (Sydney, Australia) is a pastor, speaker, author, practical theologian and the founding director of God Conversations (god​con​ver​sa​tions​.com), a global ministry that equips people to recognise and respond to God’s voice. Tania consults with and trains ministers in Spirit-led discipleship and the development of church cultures that facilitate hearing God experiences. Her PhD research, academic publications and books God Conversations and The Church who Hears God’s Voice all aim to equip everyone to recognise the Spirit in the context of their local church.